What Is It?

Matthew Rebhorn

in Pioneer Performances

Published in print January 2012 | ISBN: 9780199751303
Published online May 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780199932559 | DOI:
What Is It?

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All these performances reveal a frontier that worked to highlight the theatricality of Manifest Destiny, as opposed to its factuality, and derived its aesthetic energy from interrogating the ideology undergirding Buffalo Bill's and Turner's imperialistic fantasies. Nowhere is this energizing dismantling more evident than in the way Dion Boucicault uses the two plots of his “tragic mulatta” melodrama The Octoroon (1859) to dispute the frontier's “legacy of conquest.” This chapter thus argues, first ,that Boucicault employs the play's main plot to critique the theatrical practice of performing the frontier melodramatically, that is, as a “black-or-white” dialectic that reinforces the ideology of American imperialism, insofar as that ideology depended on a clear division between the white, civilized “self” and the racial, savage “other.” More important, by then focusing on the play's largely ignored subplot, centered on an Indian played by Boucicault, the chapter develops the idea that Boucicault emplots the frontier as a necessarily blurred, “black-and-white” set of performative practices that challenge the “black-or-white” opposition that defines both melodrama and imperialism.

Keywords: black-and-white; black-or-white; p. t. barnum; what is it; amalgamation; tragic mulatta; melodrama; frontier; dion boucicault; race

Chapter.  9947 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Literary Studies (19th Century)

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